Uproar Over E.T. Hunter Misplaced, SETI@home Founder Says

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The school superintendent investigating a former employee who ran the SETI@home program on school computers doesn't understand how the technology works or that the project is well-respected, experts in the technology field say.

Some also say that her estimates for how much money this incident will cost the school district sound inflated.

Superintendent Denise Birdwell in Higley, Arizona, recently announced that the school district's director of IT, Brad Niesluchowski, resigned after the district discovered that he had installed software for the SETI@home project on the school district's computers.

Started in 1999, SETI@home was one of the first initiatives to harness unused computing time on personal computers around the world, essentially creating a distributed supercomputer. The computing power is used to analyze large amounts of data generated from radio telescopes. The program is looking for narrow-bandwidth radio signals, which are not known to occur naturally and might offer evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Birdwell dismissed the program as one without any educational value. "We support educational research and we certainly would have supported cancer research; however, as an educational institution we cannot support the search of E.T.," Birdwell said in a news conference, part of which was included in a news video online.

"I take issue with that quote," said David Gedye, now group manager for Microsoft's Live Labs and the founder of the SETI@home project. "This is real science. Sure, it's science that's captivating to the public, that's exactly why SETI was the first and most successful of these volunteer projects," he said.

SETI@home volunteers aren't the only people interested in examining radio signals from space, he noted. Leading scientists around the world analyze radio astronomy data looking for anything currently not understood, he said. "They're generating great scientific results as a by-product of looking for signals that are not expected. That's real science," he said.

Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, has spent tens of millions of dollars building the Allen Telescope Array, a group of satellites used in radio astronomy projects and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

This year the high-profile Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference awarded one of its three US$100,000 awards to Jill Tarter, an astronomer working on a collaborative effort like SETI@home.

In addition, the BOINC software developed to support the SETI project is now supported by the National Science Foundation and is used to run volunteer distributed computing projects around fighting malaria and global warming, among others.

"I'm disappointed that this is being written off as not worthy because we went to big efforts to make sure the science behind it was strong," Gedye said.

Another well-known technologist who is not directly involved in the project is also critical of Birdwell's comments. "Unfortunately it says a lot about people who are theoretically educating our children," said Dave Farber, distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy in the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon.

One potential upside of the Niesluchowski case is that it might draw more people to look into the SETI program and potentially become involved, he said. Farber doesn't expect the situation to discourage people who are already involved in the project. "Anybody who is going to run SETI at all probably already knows enough about this field to sit back in astonishment" at the negative attention the situation is getting, he said.

Regardless of the merits of the program, most experts agree that Niesluchowski may have been breaking the rules of his employer by running the program on school computers.

Niesluchowski's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

The current head of the SETI@home project said that participants are cautioned from using employee-owned computers. "Volunteer computing projects (and the BOINC installer) have stern warnings about not using computers without permission," said David Anderson, director of the SETI@home project. "It's unfortunate that NEZ chose to ignore these warnings. Hopefully, this example will dissuade others from doing anything like this." NEZ is the name that Niesluchowski, one of the highest-ranked SETI volunteers on record, uses online.

Still, experts debate how much money running the program on the computers cost the district.

Birdwell did not reply to a request for comment. News reports quote her as saying during the press conference that running the program has cost the district US$1 million in energy and replacement parts.

If the school district had 2,000 computers left on -- with or without the SETI@home software -- for 10 years all day every day, the cost of electricity could come out to close to $1 million, Anderson figures, although the amount depends on the cost of electricity, the model of computer and factors such as whether the monitor is left on too. Some news reports say as many as 5,000 computers in the district had the software.

"If you configure the software to compute in the background while you're using the computer, and configure your computer to go into a low-power mode when you're not using it, the cost is something like $1/month," Anderson said. "Many people (currently around 500,000) believe that this is a good way to support research in areas like drug discovery, epidemiology, climate change research, helping design the LHC accelerator at CERN, and, yes, searching for signs of extraterrestrial life."

One news report said that the district had to replace the computer processors due to their 24-hour use, but experts say that using a computer all day is actually easier on the processor. "Most advice given on computers nowadays is don't power them down," Farber said. Wear and tear on electronics is greater when they heat up and cool down, as they do when a computer powers on and off, he said.

Reports also say that the district expects it will cost it more than $1 million to remove the program and fix other problems. Experts find that unlikely. If the district can remotely remove the program, it could take one minute to uninstall the software on all the computers at once, Anderson said. However, if a worker must visit each machine to uninstall the software and that process takes a minute or two for each machine, the process could take some time.

Niesluchowski isn't the first person to run into trouble for running such distributed computing programs at work. In 2002, a Georgia man faced criminal charges for using computers at the college where he worked to run programs for the distributed.net project. He was given probation. A year earlier 17 employees at the Tennessee Valley Authority were reprimanded for running the SETI program on their computers.

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